Only once since that memorable victory in Paris has Fratangelo been back to his beloved Roland Garros, but now he will be in the main draw of the men’s division for the first time. Fratangelo earned that distinction by establishing himself as the top points winner in a recent swing of American Challenger events, thus claiming the coveted wild card in the process. He takes on fellow American Sam Querrey in the opening round at Roland Garros, but whether or not he prevails is in some ways inconsequential; the mere fact that Fratangelo has a place in the main draw is essentially a victory, no matter how he fares against the more experienced Querrey.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed Fratangelo over the telephone. It was an entertaining half an hour. What came through most in this discussion was his intelligence, candor, deep enthusiasm for his craft and the pride he takes in persevering across an often arduous five years since his French Open Junior title run.
As he told me, “That was where everything changed for me. I was always a good junior in the U.S. but I was never somebody who kind of set the world on fire and grabbed people’s attention. I really wanted to experience Europe and I had never been overseas. I wanted to play on red clay and that was the first time I ever did any of that. My goal then was to kind of win my first round and enjoy myself as much as possible while I was over there. It turned out to be much more than I ever expected. I took a lot of confidence out of winning the Juniors in Paris but I also struggled with the attention that I received because that win came out of nowhere. So it was both good and bad for me.”
In retrospect, it is fascinating that Fratangelo overcame Thiem in that 2011 Junior final. Thiem, of course, is seeded No. 13 this year in the men’s event, and he has demonstrably become one of the sport’s rising young stars as well as a superb clay court competitor. Asked if he expected back then that Thiem would attain the status he has today, Fratangelo responds, “Honestly, no. Not at all. Look, he was very good in 2011. It was really a high level final we played. I won 8-6 in the third but there was not one break up until 6-6 when I broke him. I know from a couple of people that Adidas was really liking him and really was going to put a lot of their support into him because I had just gotten sponsored by Adidas one week before as well. I didn’t know anything about him at the time.”
How surprised is Fratangelo now that Thiem—who just captured his third ATP World Tour title of 2016 in Nice—has advanced so significantly in the upper levels of the game to a spot among the top 15, with the top 10 looming ever so close?
Fratangelo replies, “The way he is playing now is unbelievable. He is somebody that I look to and kind of ask why it is happening to him and how it can happen to me. What he has been able to do with winning so many ATP titles and being close to the top ten is amazing. The way he is playing right now is a lot different than the way he played in the juniors. The way he has fine-tuned everything is unbelievable. He is hitting his kick serve, forehand and backhand unbelievably. He always had a great forehand and he has always been able to play good defense, but his offensive skills have improved like I have never seen. I have never seen somebody improve like that so fast. He has solidified himself in the top 20 and is almost in the top ten and he did it in a good probably three years. It motivates me to work even harder. I am jealous, but it is a good jealousy. I want it. Look, maybe he has got more talent than me, or maybe he has just figured things out mentally faster than I did, but whatever he did I am happy for him. I like him a lot. He is a great guy. I have a lot of respect for him.”
We turn our attention back to Fratangelo. I asked him to describe the difficulties he endured over the last five years, ever since he seized that prominent prize in Paris. How did he deal with the much larger expectations surrounding him after collected that big junior crown in Paris?
“After I won the title there, “he reflects, “I came home and played things very cautiously. I didn’t want one result to determine my decision making process. I didn’t want to do something I would have regretted. With my family and the people around me, I really took my time to figure things out. Honestly, I took too much time, to the point where the decision weighed on me about whether to go to school or turn pro. It was about a year later, in 2012, that I did turn pro. During that period when I was trying to decide what to do, you have agents talking to you and college coaches as well. It is a lot of voices in your ears—maybe too many—that I didn’t want to hear at the time.”
Fratangelo was understandably confused and in some ways had become a prisoner of his own success. He explains, “I always played tennis because I loved competing. I never thought I was going to end up 2 in the world with a Junior Grand Slam title. It came so fast that I really struggled with how to handle it. I was scared to turn pro. I didn’t want to end up like the generation before me that everybody talked about, because they turned pro and the outcome didn’t turn out [as well] as it was supposed to. But I finally turned pro and it was a tough transition for me to adjust and grow into myself. Now I am 22 and happy with the way things are, but it took some time for me to feel that way.”
Initially after his Roland Garros triumphant junior run in 2011, Fratangelo found some encouragement. As he says, “I actually ending up playing my first tournament after Paris in my hometown of Pittsburgh, and I got to the finals there. It was my first final in a Futures and I lost to Brian Baker, who was starting his comeback. I was around 500 in the world at the time. I had to go through a lot of Futures and then in 2014 I got injured for three months. It was kind of hard to work my way back from there. There were definitely a lot of tough times for me over those years. I got discouraged. I wanted it to happen faster and then you are 300 in the rankings a year-and-a-half to two years later. Guys like Dominic Thiem pass you and are making their statement. But I am a guy who has always done things slowly and I trusted myself and the people around me. I knew if I kept plugging away good things would happen.”
The concrete progress seemed to take shape just when he needed it most. As Fratangelo asserts, “It started kind of at the end of 2014 when I started to win a lot of matches again and I won two Futures [events] in a row. I changed my mindset and stopped worrying about other people and what they were thinking. I just allowed myself to play, and that really led to a solid 2015 for me. I won my first Challenger and did well in a lot of tournaments and started to figure myself out in terms of the player I wanted to be and how I wanted to approach my training. I have a new coach now—Brad Stine—so it feels like a fresh start.”
Stine first enlarged his reputation permanently when he worked with Jim Courier in the early 1990’s, and ever since he has been one of the most learned of all coaches—both clinically and tactically. How did his union with Fratangelo come about?
Fratangelo answers, “Brad is working for the USTA as well. I have known him since I was about 14 years old because he used to coach a junior that I grew up with who was from California. I know Brad well and have had a good relationship with him. Once I split with my former coach, Stan Boster, I was bouncing some ideas off Brad about what he thinks I should do. I was talking to him more as a friend than a coach. And then at the Dallas Challenger earlier this year, I asked if he would help me out for the week and he said, ‘Great.’ On and off the court we get along really well. He has helped me so much in the past three to four months that I have been with him.”
Asked to clarify Stine’s most crucial contribution to his cause, Fratangelo responds, “Definitely strategy and scouting reports. He is unbelievably smart in knowing other player’s games and very good at giving me game plans. I think people would say I am a good listener and I do listen to all of the things Brad is saying. He has helped me technically with a few things on my serve and with a few small things on my forehand, but besides that it has been a lot to do with strategy and the ways I can employ my strengths and hide my weaknesses.”
Stine was there with Fratangelo when he played the three Challenger events this spring in Sarasota, Florida; Savannah, Georgia; and Tallahassee, Florida. He made it to the semifinals in Sarasota, but the key to his sealing of the French Open wildcard was winning the tournament in Savannah. He came from a set down to oust Calvin Hemery in the first round, edged Henri Laaksonen 76(2),7-5, and then rallied tenaciously to defeat countryman Frances Tiafoe.
Having survived those three rigorous skirmishes, Fratangelo took apart fellow Americans Denis Kudla (6-2,6-2), and Jared Donaldson (6-1,6-3) to secure that title. The victory over Tiafoe was pivotal.
Having lost the first set, Fratangelo was on the brink of defeat in the second. As he points out, “Tiafoe played a great game to break me at 4-4 in the second set and he served for the match at 5-4, but I broke back at love and was able to tough it out in the third.Once I won that match, I was able to free myself up in my game and go out there and just let things fly. In the final against Jared Donaldson, I know when he gets hot he can win a title anywhere he is. We were both pretty tired but I felt comfortable.”
Fratangelo toppled a trio of Americans over the last three rounds in Savannah. How does he feel about the younger crop of U.S. competitors as a slightly older and more seasoned veteran of 22? The likes of Taylor Fritz, Tiafoe, Tommy Paul and others are all a few years younger. How does he feel about this cast of promising players?
“They are all really good, ” he relies. “They are a lot better and they have a lot more belief in themselves than I did at that age. It is great that they have each other to build off and they are really good friends. That is something that could have helped me when I was coming up. I kind of did it alone. But I think for these guys now, they kind of have the world in their hands and they are having a lot of fun. I am still really young at 22. Nowadays with the 18-year-olds coming up, 22 might seem old but in reality it is really young so I don’t think anything of it. What Taylor has done is unbelievable. He has made one of the fastest rises ever. Frances and Tommy are doing well. I am happy for them. I train on a daily basis with Frances and Tommy in Boca. They push me every day in practice and I push them so it makes for a fun competitive atmosphere.”
Asked about Kudla and Jack Sock, Fratangelo says, “They are a year older than I am. I know Denis better than I know Jack because Denis trained in Boca for a long time as well. I came through the juniors with them and played Jack a few times, but I never played Denis until Savannah. I think on the clay that day the patterns favored me a little bit. He hits a much flatter ball and likes to take it early while I hit with a lot more spin, especially from my forehand side. Clay is comfortable for me. If you were to put us on grass, it could have been a totally different story.”
The conversation shifted to the subject of his father, Mario, and the depth of his influence. Fratangelo asserts, “My Dad pretty much moulded me into who I am. He coached me from the time I was two years old until I was about 19. I give him a lot of the credit for making me the player I am today. He is a little more behind the scenes now and he doesn’t want to travel these days. I don’t see him as much as I would like to. But the father/son coaching relationship has been good for us. If I ever need anything from him I know he is always there.”
Meanwhile, Stine is flourishing in that coaching role these days. In their first official tournament together at Indian Wells back in March, Fratangelo found himself up against none other than world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the second round. Others of Fratangelo’s ilk might have been utterly intimidated by that assignment, but Fratangelo approached the contest with an open mind and a sense of opportunity. He stunned Djokovic and the audience in California by taking the first set convincingly before bowing gallantly 2-6, 6-1, 6-2.
“I just wanted to go and play a good match,” he says. “That morning at breakfast with Brad, we were talking about the match and he was like, ‘Look, man, you are not going out there to just see how it is. This is what you are going to do, this is your gameplan and this is how you are going to play it.’ Once he told me that, it was an eye opener.”
Referring to his startling first set triumph, Fratangelo says, “It was amazing to come out and win a set off a guy who hardly loses anymore. I mean, he makes Nadal and Federer look somewhat average at times. So for me to win the first set was incredible. I am going to take all the credit I can for that. Everybody saw that Djokovic wasn’t playing great, which I will be the first to admit as well. I won the set and then he won the next two, but I broke back in the third set and had game points to make it 3-3. If I could have won that game it would have gotten maybe interesting because he was getting agitated and I was definitely under his skin a little bit. When he broke me for 4-2, he let out a really big ‘Come On!’ sort of towards me. I heard it and I was like, ‘All right, I have got this guy’s attention.’ Afterwards he said to me at the net, ‘Really good fight, good match.’ And he did an on court interview which was pretty complimentary, so that was nice to hear from a soon to be living legend.”
Fratangelo is delighted to be back at Roland Garros again, and he gave himself a nice confidence boost by recently reaching the final of the Bordeaux Challenger on red clay, rising to a career high of No.104 in the world with that showing. After his 2011 journey, he did not return to the French Open until a year ago. “I lost in the second round of the qualifying,” he recollects. “So this will be my first main draw there. I am thrilled. It is my favorite place where I have really good memories. I know there will be some butterflies but I hope I can manage it and play good tennis. I am really excited about this opportunity.”